Earlier this year, I wrote a post on the declining influence of religious figures in Saudi Arabia and how this could leave a void ready to be filled with something else. Within a few months, a growing nationalist sentiment swept social media and became the new body to fill this void.
For decades, tribalism and regional differences stood in the way of developing a sense of national identity in Saudi Arabia. After the first clash with Sahwa figures in the 1990s followed by the attacks of 9/11, the lack of nationalism was seen as the real culprit responsible for pan-Islamism and extremism. To salvage the situation, and in an attempt to counter pan-Islamism, ‘nationalism’ was introduced as a subject to be taught in school, but only to male students.
One of the memorably daring attempts at establishing a sense of nationalism was witnessed during the era of the late King Abdallah as he made the National Day a public holiday in 2005. This was considered a milestone since celebrating non-Islamic holidays was long opposed and referred to as bida. At that time, conservatives disapproved of the celebration and considered it an alien practice.
A number of aspiring Saudi writers and thinkers challenged the notion of nationalism in favor of Arabism. Their book Fi Ma’na Al Urouba was published after the events of the Arab Spring which revived the idea of Arabism that had been dismissed since the 1970s. As the Arab Spring turned into an Arab Winter, the regained interest in Arabism soon died down and nationalism across the Arab world, and especially in the Gulf, began to gain momentum.
For the past two years, the nationalistic discourse has reached an all time high. Nationalism is no longer only celebrated on the 23th of September; it is an every day ritual that can be witnessed on the streets, in shops and even influences how social media users define themselves. This year, the celebration of the National Day began on the 19th of September and will continue for four days. The General Entertainment Authority’s calendar has more than 100 activists and events to celebrate the event throughout the Kingdom.
The Sahwa era and it’s figures were long blamed for stifling modernization. For the past few years, the anti-Sahwa discourse gave birth to the word ‘sahwanji’ which was used to denounce the movement and its followers. The suffix –nji transforms the term into a pejorative one, and adds a negative connotation to the action. Such labels became more relevant recently as the growing sentiment against Ikhwan became more visible and soon Ikhwanji was used to denounce the Ikhwan and their sympathizers. Ironically, the term watanji is now considered the newest addition to the Saudi social media lexicon as it is used to express dismay with those who exhibit hyper nationalism.
مصطلح "وطنجي" ضروري حتى لا يستأثرون بمصطلح "وطني" شرار الناس.
— Abdulaziz Alhamdan (@aziz_alhamdan) September 14, 2018
In early 2000s, the clash between liberals and conservatives reached an all time high. The political atmosphere at the beginning of the millennium provided greater space for free expression as debates between those calling for change and those opposing it were witnessed daily in national newspapers. However, nationalism today has become the only label for the modernization project. Therefore, liberals and conservatives alike have jumped on the bandwagon of nationalism. It seems that regardless of one’s view, nationalism should always be at the forefront. The strong emphasis on nationalism seems to have succeeded in enforcing a sense of national unity to counter ideologies that have been daunting policy-makers in Saudi Arabia.